Andrei Zorin was practicing his English that memorable day back in 1983, listening to the forbidden BBC World Service on the shortwave radio when President Ronald Reagan made his declaration that the Soviet Union was an "evil empire" that must be defeated.
Zorin, a dissident-minded literary scholar, was so stunned that he risked speaking openly on the telephone to his friends to tell them about Reagan's forceful words. "I jumped out of my chair and started calling," he recalled Sunday. "Of course, to us it was no surprise that the Soviet Union was such an empire, but the idea that somebody would say it from the podium, out loud, was a revelation."
For many Russians, Reagan was then, and remains today, a hero whose challenge to communism in the 1980s led to the collapse of the Soviet Union and inspired a generation of pro-democracy activists. "Walls are crushed by words," Zorin said.
But Russia under President Vladimir Putin is hardly the free society that Reagan once envisioned. Instead, it is a country deeply ambivalent about democracy, where many are nostalgic for its lost superpower status. Putin is a popular former KGB officer who has embraced Soviet symbols that Reagan sought to discredit, and Putin has all but eliminated opposition voices from the political scene. Recent surveys show that 70 percent or more of Russians regret the Soviet collapse that Reagan pursued so relentlessly -- a sentiment captured by Putin earlier this year when he called the empire's breakup "a national tragedy on an enormous scale."
Opinions about Reagan are equally conflicted in today's Russia. Reagan's Cold War negotiating partner, Mikhail Gorbachev, hailed him Sunday as a "great president" who "displayed foresight and determination" in opening a dialogue with the Soviet Union that led to the end of the decades-long threat of nuclear war. Many of the one-time Soviet dissidents whose cause Reagan embraced lauded him as a leader who worked for democracy inside Russia.
But for every Russian who still sees Reagan as a heroic figure who helped bring freedom to this country, there are those here like retired Gen. Valentin Varennikov, who said in an interview Sunday that the late American president was "guilty in all ways" of undermining Russia's rightful place in the world.
Varennikov, one of the coup plotters who tried to oust Gorbachev in August 1991 and today is an influential leader of the new leftist-nationalist Motherland party, said he considered Reagan a dangerous hawk who pushed the two nations to the brink of war and Gorbachev a traitor who caved in to him. "It was the general strategy of the United States to destroy the Soviet Union," he said. "Reagan was just the instrument of its actual destruction because he was leader when it happened."
Putin stayed out of the debate Sunday, issuing no statement on Reagan's death.
More than most in Russia, Sergei Grigoryants had occasion Sunday to mourn Reagan's passing. In 1987, the Soviet dissident was released from prison in a gesture by Gorbachev that he attributes directly to Reagan's personal intervention. In 1988, he took part in Reagan's meeting with dissidents at the U.S. ambassador's residence in Moscow -- a day he said he would never forget because of Reagan's passion for democracy.
"When President Reagan was in power, the U.S. was very insistent on the development of democracy in Russia. His systematic support of the democratic movement in Russia was most significant," said Grigoryants.
In a speech to Moscow University students on that same historic 1988 visit, Reagan held out the promise of a land alive with "freedom of thought, freedom of information, freedom of communication."
But the news from Russia in the days before Reagan's passing appeared to underscore the elusiveness of Reagan's goal. A leading TV broadcaster was fired after complaining of government censorship. The dominant pro-Putin party in parliament announced the creation of a party training school modeled on Soviet-era Communist Party tactics.
Some experts argue, as Reagan adviser and Harvard historian Richard Pipes did in a recent article in Foreign Affairs magazine, that Russians do not want democracy as a political system, while others contend that people are disenchanted as a result of the economic turmoil of the 1990s. The dwindling ranks of liberal democrats and human rights activists describe Reagan's vision of a democratic Russia as increasingly under threat. Grigoryants faulted Reagan's successors for "forgetting to support democratic institutions here."
"The Soviet Union was an absolute evil for democratic society, and Reagan's approach was absolutely correct," said Lev Ponomaryov, a veteran human rights campaigner. Recalling Putin's remark about the "tragedy" of the Soviet breakup, Ponomaryov said the Russian president "chose the policy of condemnation of what was accomplished in Russia in the 1980s and 1990s. He made a huge mistake. You can't reform and modernize Russia on the one hand and on the other hand condemn" the Soviet Union's demise.
Sergei Karaganov, a foreign policy expert, said that for most Russians, Reagan's name is indelibly associated with his denunciation of the Soviet Union as an "evil empire," and "he was not loved for it."
Karaganov added, "At that time people were insulted, they thought it was unfair to them. It was not an empire already, it was an empty shell, so people believed he was insincere, an old-time Cold Warrior. Looking from the other side of the fence, knowing the emptiness of the system and seeing the leader of a powerful country lambasting the Soviet Union as a powerful threat seemed like a bad joke."
Even Alexander Yakovlev, who became one of Gorbachev's most influential advisers, initially viewed Reagan through that prism. "I used to get angry when people said bad things about my country even though I realized in many cases that was true," Yakovlev said in an interview. Later, as a top English-speaking Kremlin official, he established a personal rapport with the American president, and "we both mutually changed our attitude toward each other."
Yakovlev said he eventually concluded that Reagan was "one of the greatest political leaders of the 20th century" but realized his view was still far from universal here. "There's still people here who say, 'Yes, we had a good empire, and it was Reagan and Gorbachev who did away with it,' " Yakovlev said. "There's still not enough time that has passed for such views to fade."